You know what they say about mobile computing: it is the technology of the future, and it always will be.
There are a number of explanations as to why the concept of mobile working has failed to live up to its promise. Infrastructure providers will tell you, at the launch of their latest product, that until now the infrastructure has not been right. But now, as they will glibly boast at their product launch, “The benefits of mobile computing will become a reality.”
Except that in most cases we are still waiting.
So what else is preventing the technology from taking off? Applications providers have been accused of failing to produce the goods. Smart mobile applications were, and continue to be, too heavy for delivery on a mobile PC platform, be that a husky ruggedised laptop or a PDA.
Other critics say that it is madness to try to impose back-office standards on mobile users, because they work in a completely different way. The mobile user is a fleet-footed road warrior who needs to keep everything simple. Meanwhile, the back-office user is likely to be one of those half- man-half-desk creatures, with plenty of time to navigate their way through screens and input tons of information. They are not going anywhere in a hurry. And so the ultra-mobile computing sector has largely been staying put as well.
There are hundreds of thousands of workers who use laptops to keep in touch with the office. But they are not truly mobile. They will typically sit down and plug their PC into a phoneline (at their home or their hotel room) and catch up with their email.
Most people, who should be keying-in or downloading information on clients at the point of contact, do not. Why? Because a laptop is too clunky and a PDA is too fiddly.
There has never been a device that users could hold in one hand and update in the other while they were actually on the move: laptops are too heavy and only tech-savvy workers use a PDA. So there is no computing platform that would allow, say, doctors, nurses, teachers or field engineers to make the most of IT while they are actually at work.
Until now, that is. Because, if Microsoft is to be believed, its new Origami project, aimed at developing the ultimate in portable computing, will offer us all the portability of a palmtop, married to the computing power and operating system compatible with a laptop.
Samsung has been leading the charge in this market. It launched its first-generation product, the Q1, in June this year. As the first ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) to market, it was always going to have a tough time against the critics.
This so often happens with anything that breaks the mould. It is difficult to match expectations, when nobody is really sure what to expect.
Slowly and grudgingly, reviewers began to accept that these devices may be the ones they have always longed for, if only the price would come down a bit. Which it inevitably will. Besides, one man’s “toy for techies” (which was how one reviewer dismissed the first generation of UMPCs) was another man’s “cutting-edge technology for early adopters”.
But the reviewers will not make the market. Once silicon is available to make performance of these machines even more compelling, and battery life improves while the price gradually falls, these will become mass-market machines.
Dinesh Chand, product manager at Samsung’s mobile computing division, is convinced the company will build on the 4,000 Q1 units it has shifted since June this year.
“We were the first UMPC on the UK market and many market analysts expect the UMPC to follow the path of the tablet,” he says.
The attraction to end-users will be a computer that combines the power of Windows XP with mobile-ready technologies, Chand claims. That will make it easy to access and use software on the go. With small, lightweight, carry-everywhere hardware designs, Samsung says, users can connect and communicate, accomplish any task anywhere and at any time, and apparently “be entertained and informed wherever life takes you”.
Do mobile workers really need to be entertained? That is surely a moot point. It is unclear how corporate buyers will react to that. Perhaps the UMPC is supposed to be the spoonful of sugar that helps workers accept that they are always going to be trackable. However, the introduction of UMPCs creates a new level of mobile computing by pairing the power and storage capacity of a laptop with size and weight similar to PDAs.
If Samsung had this market to itself, people would rightly become suspicious of its viability. But there are plenty of other vendors piling in. Traditional manufacturers such as Fujistu (with its Lifebook P7120) and Panasonic (with its ruggedised PCs, which it has adapted for this market) have joined in. No one could accuse either of competing on price. The Lifebook costs about £2,000, while the Toughbook (a PC made to withstand being dropped from a great height) is even more expensive.
However, at the other end of the scale, companies such as Asus, Founder and Motion Computing are likely to drive prices down to win customers. No matter who makes them, the new PCs will all run on full versions of Windows XP or Windows XP Tablet.
Will the new portability entice more users to adopt them for a new set of applications?
Yes, according to Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at market researcher Quocirca.
Bamforth has a literal ‘rule of thumb’ which he applies to any assessment of the usefulness of a mobile device. “What you want to know is how many body parts does it take to operate?” he says.
“Most PDAs take two hands, and you have to keep at least one eye on them. So you can’t be that mobile or you would hit a lamp-post.”
By the same reasoning, we can discount laptops from the category of truly mobile devices.
He adds: “With a laptop you need both hands and both eyes to operate the machine. And by definition, you will need both laps, and that means sitting down, so you will need both buttocks. What sort of mobility is that?”
Here, Bamforth draws the definition between portable computing (laptops) and mobile computing (hand-held devices). Judging by the sales of laptops, the portable computing market has been well and truly cracked, but the need for mobile computing hasn’t quite been catered for. So will the UMPC provide a solution?
“The good news is that it will provide document and data compatibility,” Bamforth says. “But there are a lot of questions to be answered yet. If it is too close to a laptop in size, it will have all the constraints against mobile computing that laptops have.”
Another worry is the operating system. Users will need to be assured that devices offer a fully functioning version of Windows XP.
“If there is too much balkanisation of the operating system, they could neutralise the one powerful advantage they have,” Bamforth warns.
Another issue that needs to be overcome is in defining an identity for these devices. We have had laptops, PDAs, notebooks, smart phones, BlackBerrys and tablets. Bamforth asks: “What exactly is this device anyway? A PDA on steroids?”
The question IT buyers will want to know is, “Does it run the applications I need?” Since this is a Windows PC, the answer is almost certainly yes. But in the meantime, a lot of other device manufacturers are offering applications on other platforms.
At a recent BlackBerry Application Partners event in London, companies such as Antenna Software and IQ Link demonstrated how they are putting traditional client server applications, such as SAP, ERP and CRM, onto BlackBerrys. This means it will be equally viable to put these applications onto UMPCs.
“The key selling point of a BlackBerry is that it can be used as a data capturing device at the point of need,” says Andy Rapley, European director of sales at Antenna Software.
“The good thing about BlackBerrys is that people already use them for making calls, and if there is one simple application they can run on their device, they will do. For a device to be truly mobile, it has to be really easy to use.”
So for UMPCs to succeed as corporate computing devices, the application developers and system integrators have to keep the application interface really simple.
“I call it the washing-machine principal,” Rapley says. “There are tons of things you can do with a washing machine, but most people only use one setting. It is the same with mobile computing. If you are going to make new converts to computing, in the last mile, you have to make it simple.”
Keeping mobile device applications simple is also another way of securing them. But do we really want to give end-users PCs, only for them to be used as dumb thin clients?
“Actually, we call them smart clients,” says Terri White, marketing manager at Antenna. So perhaps we should take that as a ‘yes’ then.
So UMPCs score heavily on issues such as compatibility and usability. But there are questions about security, which sounds like a good after-sales opportunity. First, it is a case of getting the end-users hooked. Then, when they understand just how easy to use these devices are, make a
follow-up sale to secure the systems for them.
At the IBM mobile computing technology division, they think the UMPC has as good a chance as any of becoming a mass-market business tool for mobile workers.
This is a ‘device agnostic’ organisation that is happy to use any device, as long as it helps clients to collaborate using Lotus tools.
Marcus Hooper, who leads the northern European enterprise access and client technologies section at IBM’s mobile computing technology division, points to the impact a mobile device can have on a company’s IT strategy.
“You must never let the device dictate your future infrastructure decisions,” Hooper warns. “This can happen if you choose a niche operating system.”
Here he may be referring to the BlackBerry examples mentioned earlier. “You might choose a device that does a specific job, and does it very well,” he says. “But the danger here is that thisrestricts you to a paradigm: an operating environment that isn’t compatible with other applications.”
This is a grave charge, but integrators such as IQ Link, which enables SAP systems to be run on BlackBerrys, would probably disagree. If they can get SAP to run on a BlackBerry, surely they can get any application onto any device.
Besides, as IQ Link’s sales manager Paul Viney puts it: “If something is going to be ultra portable, it has got to be ultra easy to use, and also ultra secure.”
Nevertheless, the warning about open standards needs to be heeded. If only because everyone else is going to be obsessed with this issue, so it will be difficult to make a sale if resellers insist on swimming against the tide. Especially if the big players in the market become vociferous on this issue.
“We think it is important to develop on open standards, using tools such as Java and XML and so on,” Hooper says. “These will allow [the channel] to develop applications to run on a variety of devices.”
Ultimately, the device is not important. But these good-looking new UMPCs could be the hook to get resellers into new money-making opportunities, such as integration and security.
David Murray, managing director of system integrator Kirona, has long experience of implementing mobile in difficult circumstances.
He even managed to work successfully with deputy prime minister John Prescott, implementing an intelligent mobile solution for council inspectors in Sheffield and Barnsley.
The office of the deputy prime minister, under whose aegis this public-sector project was commissioned, was so impressed by this use of IT that it published a white paper on the subject.
According to Murray, there are important lessons about previous mobile applications failures that should be learnt from.
Many solutions in the market today remain based on the first-generation dumb mobile application. These are characterised by the cradle-based download of data to a local device with little real-time capability. If users operate the UMPC this way, they will be neutralising its potential, Murray warns.
“Many high-profile failed projects can be identified where the upload synchronisation using separate third party interfaces have caused the projects to fail,” he says.
The second-generation, ‘smarter applications’, offered a real-time access capability to existing back office systems. They delivered some efficiency savings, but tend to suffer from performance and cost issues.
The UMPC will succeed if it offers third-generation mobile applications, which Kirona has dubbed Motile solutions. The key here is the recognition that the worker context for remote workers throws up completely different challenges. This leads to the conclusion that reflecting the back-office system design is not the right solution to meet the challenges of mobile and flexible working. There is clearly a market out there for UMPCs, especially the public sector.
Chand says: “Markets such as healthcare, education, the public sector, local government and finance organisations have both the budget and the need for a mobile data access and notation device providing information on demand.”
The critical aspect for VARs and system integrators is to understand individual business needs of each organisation and define the usage scenarios based on these needs. Once a clear scope and application needs are addressed for UMPC, then sales benefits can be easily distinguished.
Quocirca (01264) 393 359
IBM (020) 8818 5349
Antenna Software (0118) 965 3720
IQ Link (01344) 667 363
Samsung (01932) 455 100
Kirona (01625) 585 511
Panasonic (01344) 853 854
Chief exec Jens Montanana claims Logicalis performed well despite 'currency headwinds'
All the photos from last night's event, which saw over 600 people congregate at the Hilton London Bankside
Five year deal with Essex NHS Trust will cover 400 sites, including hospitals, clinics and GP practices
18 individuals and three companies walked away as winners at CRN's inaugural Women in Channel Awards last night